On Awe, a Summary and Critique

Senior Christopher Moore presented his thesis and senior fellowship on the philosophy of awe yesterday. The audience, fifty strong, “exceeded my expectations,” said Moore, “which is part of awe.”

More than simply defining awe, Moore strove to put the sensation in a cognitive framework, asking what questions could frame it–questions beyond “How’s the awe going?” “What can be awesome to people?,” Moore asked, and answers widely ranged, from instances of “natural awe,” say at a plain or mountain, to intellectual awe, at a theory or new paradigm. But awe can also be more mundane; a “chair historian” may, for example, gain “deep perspective” from one of the lecture hall’s wobbly seats.

Moore went on to describe the sensation in some detail, from facial expressions and other physiological effects (quickened heart rate, sweaty palms) to psychological reactions and emotional response (“ambivalently pleasurable”).

Moore remarked, and rightly so, that despite these similarities of experience, awe is difficult to pin down, for the very reason of its existence: subjects in awe are unlikely to record and measure it with necessary rigor and laboratory experiments are impossible. “It’s hard,” Moore noted, “to stick mountains in a laboratory.”

Awe is “all the things you need a toothpaste to accomplish, plus whitening,” said Moore, gesturing at a projection of a tube of Colgate Total Plus Whitening toothpaste. Moore elaborated by describing his first sighting of the immensity of the Grand Canyon. He was told to that it would be “bigger than you expect,” but found the canyon to be “even bigger than that…beyond language, beyond words.” When one experiences awe, said Moore, one “comes to the realization of certain truths.” It is unfortunate that Moore didn’t draw this line of thinking out.

In addition to mining his own experience, Moore looked to literature, particularly memoir, for insights into the experience of awe. He quoted Thoreau at length (no great surprise for those who know Moore) describing his reaction to the view from a mountaintop and then DeLillo, from his novel White Noise describing a threatening, toxic cloud.

Moore concluded by tackling the most difficult question he had posed, on the composition of awe. The sensation is comprised of varying parts of wonder and fear, he proposed, and can be thus explained by turning to evolution. Awe of wide-open spaces, for example, is a protective reaction to being indefensible, as one would be on a plain. Awe of mountains reflects their danger similarly, as enemy strongholds or natural hazards in their own right. The fear that Moore ascribes to intellectual awe can be explained as “fear of losing face”–in a sense, evolutionary jealousy. And, finally, the awe of danger can be linked to the thrill of being “shot at and missed” and the presumptive “contagiousness of excellence” (i.e., of those left standing).

Moore has shown himself, with respect to awe, to be a very skilled empiricist but a weaker theorist (at least, as could be divined from his talk; final judgment will have to be withheld until I read his work) by saddling the phenomena with necessary fear. This decision has forced Moore to endure all manner of intellectual contortion, up to his evolutionary analysis, which, were it carried to a logical end, would have had early man paralyzed on the analyst’s couch with neurosis, hardly a viable survival strategy. This explanation is just post-hoc rationalization. Moreover, though simple fear can be justified in such terms, wonder cannot. The appreciation of a pleasant vista carries no evolutionary advantage. What reason is there, then, for fear�sufficient on its own�to bind with wonder?

The solution to Moore’s mistake is simple: awe need not include fear as part of its experience. Consider, for example, the delightful awe taken from a fiction that affirms one of the reader’s long-held prejudices, perhaps against something so mundane as a school of art or painter. Knowing that another share’s one’s hidden, perhaps even masked, opinion and that this respected other does so thoughtfully and logically does inspire a mundane awe of connection from which fear is absent.

Of course, some awe may be colored by fear, but this is a co-occurrence, driven by more base instincts that may well be evolutionary in origin. Strong awe itself can cause fear, but it is a fear of the unknown or the unconceivable or the ineffable, not an essential property of the awe but a reaction to it.

So, then, what is awe? Is it just wonder, or what? I think that Moore was headed in the right direction when he discussed the role of truth in the experience of awe. He erred by not recognizing it as crucial. Awe may be a simple subset of wonder, not necessarily characterized by fear but instead by revelation. Awe is the natural result of the forcing of truth. A mountain, for example, forces a person to confront his relative smallness, powerlessness, and youth. The mountain is bigger, stronger, and more permanent. For natural enormity to strike us, it must inspire these thoughts. An unending plain affects the individual similarly, forcing his binocular vision to converge far beyond the length at which it normally does. The individual is drawn, then, to consider the nearness of his mundane life versus the farness of possibility. The effect, of course, is humbling but also inspiring.

Awe invokes a reordering of thought, a realignment of cognition, and it is this that makes intellectual awe and mundane awe possible. Einstein’s famous equation, for those who grasped it�s implications, invoked a radical shift in perceptions that had been, experientially, hitherto static. Matter and energy became one thing, as did time and space. Speed lost its precision, as perception of space and time would later, goaded by Heisenberg. Fear may accompany the awe of such jarring revelations; indeed, wonder at possibilities of the unknown may, on some level, demand it.

Other awe, though, is fearless through and through. Moore’s example of a connoisseur coming upon a new representative of his passion is a good one. The expert is not driven to awe by what he already knows but by what is new to him. A chair expert may find on a particular model a subtle design feature, all but lost to the casual user, that changes his conception of the being of chairs–the way they’re designed or used, the way a particular designer or manufacturer operates, or some other notion. This change can be a delight or a misery (perhaps forcing the retooling of old private theories) but need only be feared by chronic neurotics.

Awe, then, may be wonder and nothing more, albeit a specific kind of wonder, one that requires cognition appropriate for the situation. In other words, one need be an expert to experience awe, even awe that we often consider universal, like natural awe. On the ledge of the Grand Canyon, we’re all experts.

So, then, why awe? Awe may be a social impulse, brought about by our need to organize ourselves into and join groups. The chair enthusiast, for example, reaffirms his being as a chair enthusiast by realigning his private theories of chair design, his internal schemas. Similarly, before a precipice, all men are equally human, equally vulnerable to the drop�s lethality. By recognizing our connection to nature, then, we recognize more strongly our connection to each other.

Maybe Durkheim had it backwards. Maybe it was the acknowledgement of higher beings that brought with it euphoria rather than the other way around; after all, can any idea be more awesome than that of a great creator who is able to direct chance?